Infectious Diseases

Our scientists are working to understand how environmental conditions influence infectious disease risk. In today's rapidly changing world, protecting human health requires an ecosystem-based approach to monitoring and addressing emerging infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.


Our Work

Cary Institute visitors often encounter researchers in white coveralls. Their suits help prevent unwanted tick bites while they investigate the ecological conditions that regulate Lyme disease risk. As human populations move into suburban and rural environments, encounters with infected black-legged ticks have increased. In the Northeast, Dutchess County has one of the highest human infection rates.

Research conducted at the Cary Institute has correlated the prevalence of infected black-legged ticks with land use and biodiversity loss. When the landscape is highly fragmented and white-footed mice dominate, human risk increases. In intact landscapes with a diversity of animals, such as opossum and fox, human risk declines. This is because non-mouse hosts are less likely to transfer Lyme disease to ticks.

An analogous finding is seen in West Nile virus research. Infection is most common in developed areas, where blue jays and crows dominate local bird populations (the virus is amplified in their bodies). In less developed areas, where the native bird fauna is more diverse, human risk decreases.

The “dilution effect” has applications to other infectious disease systems and highlights the importance of species protection in land-use planning.

Highlighted Projects
tick collecting

Lyme Disease

Different species of tick hosts tend to have different probabilities of transmitting an infection to a feeding tick. In eastern and central North America, the host most likely to transmit an infection to a feeding tick is the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), which infects between 40% and 90% of feeding larvae.

Spatio-Temporal Variation in West Nile Virus Intensity

West Nile virus emerged in the western hemisphere during the summer of 1999, reawakening public awareness to the potential severity of vector –borne pathogens.

Biodiversity, Community Ecology, and the Dilution Effect

Biodiversity can protect human health by reducing human exposure to diseases transmitted from wildlife. Environmental changes, such as habitat fragmentation, can increase disease risk by reducing both predators and biodiversity.

Related Issues

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